The 00s: Film (Documentary) – Intro and 10-6

When it comes to the line between fiction and documentary film, I agree with Werner Herzog: such a line is unnecessary, and essentially imaginary.  Separating them as fabrication and fact takes something away from both: the truth that can be captured in a story written and performed well, and the art exercised by a director presenting the beauty of real events.  A far more worthwhile approach is to consider both simply as films.  You can learn as much about yourself watching a film from a Charlie Kaufman script as you can be entertained by Michael Moore polemic, right?  And anyway, when you have people like Herzog mixing truth and untruth in all of his films – documentary or otherwise – to quite magical effect, it is sometimes impossible to choose which category the film you’re watching belongs in.

Nevertheless, bookstores need sections to separate one genre from another, and blogs do too.  So here we are.

The 00s brought much wider recognition and appreciation for documentary cinema, and I would suggest two chief factors in this.  The first is called Bowling for Columbine, and I’ll talk more about that further down the page.  The second is called the Internet, opening up a massive global audience for all kinds of films and an ideal platform for docs – the proliferation of other media and information online makes it quick and easy to obtain as much or as little information about something as you would care to.  Added to that, making a film is much simpler nowadays with digital video and cheap and powerful editing software, so legions of budding filmmakers are able to produce something for nothing and then put it online for the world to see.

I’m one of those budding filmmakers.  Here are ten documentary films produced in the 00s which eventually inspired me to get started on my own movie (coming soon, watch this space…)

10. Jackass Number Two (Jeff Tremaine, 2006)

Weren’t expecting that, were you?  The Wikipedia page states, “Jackass Number Two is a compilation of various stunts, pranks and skits, and essentially has no plot.”  A remarkable document of extreme behaviour, voyeurism and (arguably) Dadaism, it is also one of the most entertaining films of the 00s – but only if you have the stomach to watch Steve-O attach a leech to his eyeball, or Chris Pontius insert his penis into a snake’s cage.

9. Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper, 2004)

Perhaps the 00s’ most depressing film; certainly the one which made me feel most sick and sad at the state of the world and the human race.  Lake Victoria used to be a typical African lake, basically as it would have been millennia ago, until Europeans introduced the Nile perch – a particularly large and tasty fish – into its waters.  Within years the ecological balance became completely unhinged, and as this film shows, the ripples reach out from the water and into the lives of every person living in the area.  While I sometimes pine for those innocent days of ignorance before I saw Darwin’s Nightmare, this is a desperately important film that everyone who professes to care about their fellow man owes it to themselves to see.

8. Waves (Li Tao, 2005)

Read my full review for a closer look, but where sweeping statements are concerned, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that this effort from first-time director Li Tao was the most enlightening and inspiring film to come out of New Zealand in the 00s.  If nothing else, it was certainly the most moving, and offered a restrained yet deeply intimate portrait of the life of teenaged Chinese going to school abroad.  This is something that happens everywhere from Wellington to Washington, and Tao has made the film about the experience.  After seeing it, I prayed that it would reach as wide an audience as possible so the greatest number of eyes could be opened, and minds broadened.  The DVD can be ordered here.

7. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)

Bowling for Columbine was the film that brought documentaries (back?) into the mainstream.  Grossing millions and garnering an Oscar, it cut a swathe through the film market and brought the masses to see that they could be entertained as they were being informed.  In many cases, it showed people such as myself that there are alternatives to mainstream media.  Its biggest impact, however, was probably to promote Moore’s personality to the point where his next film would gross over US$100 million – staggering for a ‘documentary’ – and his movements and polemic became worldwide current events.  In the wake of its cultural relevance, it might be easy to forget how good Columbine is; while Moore occasionally messes with the truth in order to keep the viewer hooked, he crafts a superb viewing experience that keeps you amused, shocked and riveted for the duration.  The best moment comes when Marilyn Manson has his turn to speak and, with no pomp whatsoever, quietly sums up the entire movie.

6. DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)

Truly demonstrating the benefit of hard work and dedication, Timoner spent seven years following The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre and managed to edit weeks of footage into DiG!, one of the best films about music.  It has at its centre the towering talents and ego of Anton Newcombe, who would surely be a bigger star than the Dandies’ chiselled frontman, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, if he followed his rival’s music business motto: “if it’s good, it’s fun; if it’s bad, it’s funny”.  The film follows as the two bands start off as close friends, living and jamming together, then steadily drift apart under the gaze of Newcombe’s increasingly unhinged wild grin.  Tambourine player Joel Gion’s perpetually amused attitude is a joy for every moment that he’s on screen.

For the second half of the list, click here.

Waves (2006) (H)

Directed by Li Tao

Waves achieves that most encouraging potential of documentary film: the presentation of events that constitute a unique experience for the individuals on screen, while also inviting the audience to respond and relate to what’s going on based on their own personal experience. It follows brief periods in the lives of four Chinese teenagers attending Hutt Valley High School as international students, achieving a rare level of intimacy that keeps you fascinated by these people as it provokes you to consider your own position. I’ll get this out of the way immediately: it falls short of the highest rating because of some distracting technical issues and often limited documentary technique, but I am at pains to insist that the content is good enough to carry these failings.

First we meet Ken. The message from his story is that no matter how well you manage to adapt, no matter how friendly your hosts and new classmates are, there’s no place like home. Over at Lumière, they’ve made special mention of the scene in which he breaks down crying while looking at a photo taken back in China. It is incredibly moving, but the conversation he has with his father that immediately precedes it is just as important to note – especially when he says “Oh, you’re on a business trip”. It’s the purest portrait of alienation cinema has to offer, and it is all the more surprising given that it comes immediately after he has so happily celebrated Father’s Day with his homestay family. Yes, things are going fine for Ken (later we see that he’s coping wonderfully at school, too), but it doesn’t take a lot of reminding that the comforts of home are sorely missed.

Rose is next, and her story provides many of the film’s most delightful moments. At first the focus is narrow: we see her hanging out with a few other Chinese students, at home in her bedroom, and studying in class. She seems just as alienated as Ken did. However, Tao steadily reveals more details until we see just how remarkable this girl is – she’s pursuing academic opportunities she would have ignored back home, she speaks good English with a Kiwi accent, and most of all, she is popular and well-liked by many at school. This is illustrated best by a brief shot of the gifts she receives for her birthday just from other students – a desk drawer stuffed to overflowing with chocolates, flowers and toys. She hasn’t just come here to study; she’s really making the most of the experience.

Her to-camera musings on the differences between the Chinese and Kiwi cultures throw up many questions. She says that in China you are more driven, better focused, but less individual; in New Zealand, you are encouraged to be unique and pursue that which appeals to you. Which is better? Who is to say? Rose prefers the freedom afforded her in New Zealand, but her parents might feel it is impractical to be studying music and design. I believe that any individual of capable thought should be allowed to seek out whatever path in life they wish, as long as they are not doing harm to others; when I have kids, I will have similarly open expectations of them as my parents had of me. Being allowed to experience two cultures growing up, Rose has the ability to transcend them both and be truly international; she’s the most assimilated of the four, and to these Kiwi eyes, the smartest and most interesting. She is the most like a Kiwi, and I respond well to that; however, I think it’s just as much the case that she is a special, unusually socially capable person.

With Lin, Tao focuses completely on the trials and tribulations she experiences leading up to the school ball. It’s a snapshot of the challenges our wonderful country presents, as well as a sometimes painful reminder of how god-damned difficult high school could be sometimes. Lin struggles to reconcile the ball with Chinese values; back home, she would be studying for exams, not having a night of fun. Indeed, she swings back and forth between whether to go or stay in studying, as she has trouble finding a dress and a partner. We have all had these impending major engagements that we worry about a great deal, thinking of all the things that can and surely will go wrong, only to find that everything comes together on the day. Somehow. I imagine she would have had similar problems with coming to New Zealand, but it looks like that worked out okay, too.

If Lin had difficulty getting her head around how things go in New Zealand, Jane flat out rejects them. She has no desire to enjoy this country the same way she enjoys her homeland. It’s just a step along the way, a period of her life best lived as alone as possible for fear of becoming attached to something she is sure she will soon leave behind. As Tao narrates, she is part of the group at school that remains quiet in the background – she is what most Kiwis would say is a ‘typical’ Asian student. She so misses home that she keeps her watch set to Beijing time. To me, this is a little bit sad, like she’s missing out on something that could be wonderful. That’s just my point of view, though. To her, the maximum amount of isolation is necessary to survive as the person she is. Where I would want to get to know as many different people as possible, she wants only to complete the qualifications and go back to where she is happy and feels comfortable. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

All this is particularly interesting to me, because I will soon become an outsider in a foreign country. I’m going to Japan next year, and I wonder, what will be the same? Will it be me switching off the lights and sobbing as I look at pictures of me with my family? Granted, I am older than these four were coming here, but I am sure some of my experiences won’t be too far removed from theirs. That’s the great beauty of this film: it gives you brief portraits of four very unique individuals, but contributes so much to our universal understanding of each other as a species. Equally as impressive, it does it without once hitting us over the head with an idea.

In the post-screening Q & A (or what I caught of it before running off to work), Tao stated that she ostensibly made the film for the parents of these international students, so that they could see what life was like for their children; however, upon completing it and showing it to others, she saw that it could have an impact on many Kiwi viewers. I would go further than that. I would suggest that, in a Western society that is increasingly assimilating itself with previously ignored (and even feared) cultures such as China, almost anyone could be moved to think deeply by this film. Of course there were a select few walkouts – we obviously still have some way to go – but too bad for them. Waves is a more insightful and provocative film about New Zealand and the global society than any that has been made for a long time.